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To Paint or Not to Paint?

Local brick homes not immune to paint trends
Chicagoland's Finest Painter - Ronbos Fine Painting

A house on Linden Avenue in Oak Park had contrasting bands of brick and stucco on the first and second floors (below), but now has a uniform dark palette following a new paint job (above).

According to home décor websites such as Houzz and Better Homes and Gardens, hot colors for home exteriors include black, charcoal gray and white. A click of the remote control to any popular home design programming will show you that painting an older brick home white or black is an instant upgrade to a more modern look.

While the trend may seem more suitable to contemporary homes rather than our historic housing stock, a slow drive around Oak Park and River Forest reveals that painting brick is catching on here, even on houses in historic districts.

Architect and former chair of Oak Park’s Historic Preservation Commission Christopher Payne says of painting brick, “There are so many issues here. Preservation, aesthetics, technical issues.”

He says that the village Historic Preservation Commission has not adopted exterior paint color standards.

“Secretary of the Interior Standards call for not painting brick and for using historically appropriate colors, but we didn’t adopt that part of the standards, so Oak Park does not regulate painting or paint color,” Payne said. “The sad part of this is that so much of Arts & Crafts and Prairie School architecture is defined by color. Not following the guidelines results in homes that don’t preserve this significant design feature. In the worst case, it could be damaging to the brick as it could potentially trap moisture in the structure.”

From his work with clients, Payne says he has seen a push to paint brick or stucco, and he is generally against painting brick, especially on historic homes.

“Personally, I don’t like it from an aesthetic perspective because brick is a through-material,” Payne said. “It has an intrinsic color. Like stone or copper, it shouldn’t be painted.”

Preservationists, Payne says, often propose easily reversible modifications to older homes.

“The installation of a solar panel or handrail or even a small addition can be done without affecting the original structure,” he said. “These items can then be easily removed in the future. Painting brick or stone is not an easily reversible intervention, because it takes great effort to remove paint from a porous surface. So, you are stuck with it and its maintenance for many, many years.”

Practical Considerations

Ron Feeley, who owns Ronbos Fine Painting, says painted brick has become a big trend for a younger wave of home buyers.

“It’s an Instagram thing. It’s a Pinterest thing,” he said. “The younger generation doesn’t like brick.”

He says that although he’s painted six brick homes in the past few years, it’s not something he recommends.

“Once you paint it, you have to do it again in a few years,” Feeley said. “Regular brick is forever.”

He adds that for more modern homes with what he calls an ugly brick finish, a paint job can make the house look better and more cohesive, but it’s important for clients to know that painting brick creates a maintenance issue in that the paint will need to be redone on a regular basis.

Feeley says there are a few options to change the color of original brick. A popular application right now is to use milk paint. It’s a lighter-colored paint, and once it starts to dry, the painter power washes it, giving the finish and aged, weathered look.

“It adds a little bit of color but you can kind of see the brick beneath it,” Feeley said. “It won’t peel a lot because it is already washed down.”

Another option is to use a high-solids acrylic latex paint. Feeley says the paint has to have a flat finish so the brick can breathe, and it’s important to use a high-quality acrylic primer so that the paint will adhere. A third option is to use a latex concrete stain.

With all applications, Feeley says, preparation is key. Brick has to be chemically cleaned and pressure washed first.

“Contamination could create a failure problem down the road,” he said.

When it comes to costs, Feeley says painting brick does not cost that much more than painting wood siding. He notes that brick requires less preparation than the scraping and sanding that wood requires, but because brick is porous, it requires more paint.

What does cost more is changing your mind. Feeley says the cost to remove paint from a house is quite a bit more than putting it on. Citing an example of what he calls a standard 2,000-square-foot brick home in northeast Oak Park like the one his mother owned, Feeley says it would cost roughly $13,000 to paint the brick.

To take the paint off the same house, he estimates would cost $30,000 to $50,000 due to the amount of labor involved. Removing the paint requires chemicals such as methyl chloride.

“I wouldn’t take that job because it’d be a toxic job,” he said.

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